“What’s going on? It’s dying time captain!”
Hands-down, that’s got to be one of the worst bits of Kids TV dialogue I think I’ve ever heard, and that’s a storied lineage to choose from. I'm sure that anyone growing up in the advent of cable television and the renaissance of sorts that it spelled out for Saturday morning entertainment has their personal favorites, but for overall delivery, melodrama, and awkwardness, that line takes the cake.
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future is another entry in this TV legacy, a show developed in part as a platform to sell kids 6” tall pieces of plastic shaped like whatever archetypical prototype they found themselves ideologically connected with. Watching a show like this, it’s almost difficult to tell which came first, the tittering board room full of plot-writers, or the tittering board room full of Mattel executives. For raw inventiveness, though, the show definitely leaves its mark, pushing kids' action television in new, albeit disturbing directions.
The first bit was the perfunctory toyline that emerged alongside the single season of the television show. Captain Power action figures were designed to pick up on certain signals/frequencies generated during episodes of the show, activating hidden features on the toys. The technology was developed by Nolan Bushnell, whose past inventions – Atari and Chuck E. Cheese – put him in the pantheon of commercial inventors adept at getting kids to passively stare open-mouthed for long periods of time.
Then, of course, there’s the plotline. An unbelievable pastiche of futuristic tidbits and aesthetic/philosophical choices that act as a sounding board for great dystopian films of the last 15 years (as of 1988 of course). Please note, that as I run through a basic summary of the scenario we’re dealing with, I’m going to tick off the films referenced, just for posterity’s sake.
The show follows Captain Jason Power, a soldier who lost his father to Lord Dread, a former-partner-turned-evil-cyborg, seeking to ensure the dominance of machine over man after the end of Metal Wars (Terminator, as well as some tinges of the dark/light force dichotomy of Star Wars). Roaming the wasted North American terrain (Mad Max visuals), Captain Power and his team of highly trained soldiers and tactical experts seek out missions (Star Trek) centered around saving humanity from “digitization,” a process in which human beings are transformed into data (bits of Tron) by the “bio-dread” hunting machines. There’s also the occasional shot of Lord Dread’s “Volcania” hideout, which is a dead ringer for the sprawling brood-lairs and cosmic structures of Blade Runner.
It doesn’t take much work while you’re making your way through the show to see that it was cobbled together -- that, to be frank, apocalypse was in vogue. We were dealing with the persistent march towards a more intricately-connected world, and the implications were still vague enough for any number of terrifying scenarios to catch our attention (in this case, the classic machine over man confrontation). Captain Power is a reflection of any number of classic films, pulling bits and pieces into something simpler and imminently marketable, but still tinged with a tangible future-dread.
And the darkness seeps over in more than one way. There’s some really disturbing scenes of gun play, where CP is just blasting away at these robots. We’re talking like, savagely gunning down humanoids in a way that’s far beyond what you’d expect in a kids’ show. The last episode filmed also concluded with the character Pilot incinerating herself in order to destroy Lord Dread’s soliders. There’s even a thinly veiled reference to Hitler Youth.
The fantastic irony of the show lies in its clearly commercial purpose, and its apparent lack of attention to its own subject matter. Nothing screams cognitive dissonance louder than a television show anxiously forecasting a singularity-driven apocalypse while simultaneously marketing merchandise that's built to independently interact with the show itself, thus keeping kids planted firmly in front of the tube to get the most out of their toys. Ultimately, Captain Power ends up pushing its viewers towards an immersive, tech-centered interaction with the show, proving once again that science isn’t ever going to bring about the end of the world. Marketing and commercialism, on the other hand, they just might.
P.S. There is a DEFINITE reference to City Lights (as City Limits) Bookstore. Nice name-drop you guys!